Thursday, August 03, 2017

Monte haul problem

For never was a story of more woe than this of our trip to Montenegro

Confirming my theory that family traits pop up in each successive generation, Brenna (like her uncle Alex quarter of a century earlier) turned up with one small hold-all and declared that was everything she needed. That said hold-all was actually a fashion item in and of itself only adds to my impression that style is a gene which drove past me without stopping, much like the airport shuttle bus in the car park as I dragged two bulging aged suitcases which were scrupulously packed with stuff that seemed like it might be necessary in some unspecified situation. 

"Maybe we'll spend all week here," mused Leo, as we stood waiting for the next one. I was painfully aware of the minutes ticking down towards check-in deadline. This feeling of unease became more acute when the shuttle arrived and ground to a halt in traffic between terminals. By the time we got to check-in, we were informed that we really needed to "go straight through as it'll be boarding soon." This instruction was rendered useless, however, after she'd checked in my two suitcases and looked at Brenna's bag. "That can't go through here. You'll have to check it in at aisle 73."

Aisle 73 consisted of a bored looking young man on the phone next to a stationary conveyor belt and an equally stationary queue the length of the concourse. Despair began to bubble up inside me.

It all seemed so unfair. I'd done nothing wrong and yet the universe seemed to have taken a distinctly dim view of my attempts to organise a holiday for me and two offspring. In the past, things have gone wrong, but in hind sight I could find clues as to why and say things like: "Ah, I should have got my passport renewed before the day of travel." or "A car where the headlights have to be turned off by opening the bonnet is going to attract the attention of airport security at the drop-off point." or "Well, someone always throws up in the hire car." This time, I'd been uncharacteristically organised: villa, flight, car park, hire car, passports - all sorted well in advance. I even spoke to the owner of the villa who sent me a series of detailed photos and instructions for finding it, which included at least three chapels.

It all started going wrong, like all the best comic disaster movies, at 13:09 on the day before.

First I received a text informing me that "Visa has advised us that your card details are at risk. To protect your account we have put a block on your card. To reactivate your account please reply agree [sic] to have a new card sent." I read it three times in the car park at work before I could understand it. Then I called them and started yelling like Young Fred in Yellow Submarine: "" Cash, it transpired, could be transferred to my account the next morning, meaning I could turn it into Euros before setting off for the airport. The big worry was the hire car where the terms and conditions quite clearly stated that a valid credit card would be needed to take a deposit on collection. I'd just have to cross that particular bridge when I got to it.

There's always a "When dead-man's gulch fills with water, it's time to pack up and leave town." moment in said film and ours was when we went out for a nice stroll in Crich that evening. Brenna, having packed so lightly, was wearing her holiday clothes despite my warning: "You'll fall and get them dirty." She did and five minutes later the villa owner rang me and said "Um, there are forest fires in the area around the villa. Thought I'd best let you know." 

I spent the rest of the evening and into the night Googling 'Forest fires Montenegro' and was rewarded with a lovely satellite picture, courtesy of NASA, showing plumes of smoke, one of which was clearly coming from the exact spot where the villa's little pin is on the map. The owner's advice was "Go. I know lots of people round there who'll put you up or get your insurance to pay for a hotel if you can't get to the villa." I thought: "What the hell. Probably won't be able to get a hire car anyway."

In the airport, I confess there was a part of me that actually thought: maybe if would be a good thing if we missed this flight. But then you kind of get swept along.

"I'll take it on as hand luggage," said Brenna helpfully as I stood gormlessly looking at the nonoperational aisle 73.

The elation of this idea lasted two minutes until she realised: "It's got all my make-up in it."

"Can you dump it?" I asked and received a withering look (that's probably genetic too).

An extremely efficient and helpful attendant sorted it all out into clear plastic bags and ushered us to the machine that goes ping - in my case anyway. I had to be swabbed for god-knows-what and then Leo's bag which contains 10kg of Anime and consoles had to be emptied. We jogged through the obstacle course of weird shiny shit that you can only buy at airports and got to our gate. For some reason we had two sets of boarding cards which upset the attendant somewhat and then he spotted that Brenna's bag had a hold luggage tag on it. If we had noticed, we could have removed it and nobody would have been any the wiser, as it was the bag had to be taken and put in the hold. We thought that was ironic - little did we know...

"Bet we never see that again," was our consensus view.

Having been rushing around all day up to that point and having not really slept much the night before, it seemed like a victory of sorts just to be sitting on the actual aeroplane. After it had been sitting on the ground in Manchester for an hour and half I was less enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, it did duly deliver us to Croatia and we took bets as to whether Brenna's bag would turn up on the carousel. Of course it did - straight away, having been last in and first out along with the buggies. The same cannot be said for our suitcases.

After the conveyor stopped moving a gaggle of fractious British travellers descended on a tiny hatch where an airport worker frantically called for help. It took over an hour to fill in forms and have them entered on the computer. I now know every category of luggage from the illustrated identification sheet - vertical style, soft, two wheels; horizontal shell with four wheels etc. The hour and a half our aircraft had been waiting for a window had not, it appeared, been long enough for baggage handlers at Manchester to overcome a technical issue and transport our belongings the hundred yards from terminal to hold.

It was now getting quite late and I was in that strange detached state so beloved of zombies and people coming round after anaesthetic. I just glazed over when the hire car person told me he would lose his job if he let me have a car without a working credit card in the driver's name. Eventually, after several phone calls and lots of people coming and going, we were led to another portacabin and left with a man who looked like every Eastern European gangster in television crime dramas. He would take cash, yes. I was somewhat nervous at the thought that nearly all my available money was in Euros in my trousers, although I had taken the precaution of giving some to Brenna just in case.

Once we got the car, we headed out for the border with Montenegro which involves two sets of customs separated by a mile long stretch of road through rugged wooded hills. It was here that we saw our first fires. Croatia, it seemed, had managed to put out any on their side of the border but on the Montenegrin side they burned with gusto. The smell of smoke was a constant companion for the rest of our drive. We stopped at a supermarket, only for its doors to literally close in our pleading tired faces. Supper, therefore, was ice creams and an assortment of nuts and crisps from a 24 hour garage.

Our longest day was not over yet, however, even though technically it was tomorrow, so to speak. After another couple of hour's drive including a car ferry across the estuary, we started up the winding lane into the hills where our instructions informed us the villa was situated. The smell of smoke was definitely stronger here and we had to pull over and let fire trucks and water tankers go past. Eventually, about two kilometres from our destination our way was blocked by a number of these vehicles and groups of men in army fatigues. There is one road which goes round the peninsula, so we could either get past or go back and round the entire route in the other direction. I was just too tired to contemplate that, so, with ash raining down around us like snow, we nosed our way past the fire engines and the tankers and the soldiers. 

We found the farm track leading to the villa but at the very last, took a wrong fork and ended up at a dead end in the pitch dark outside a farm building. I was pretty confident that if I tried to reverse back up the boulder strewn track, I would be explaining considerable damage to the car hire gangster. As we studied the directions, trying to work out where we went wrong, a man came out of the building, obviously woken up by us, and introduced himself as Zoran. Oh thank fuck: he was the housekeeper for the villa. To my great relief, he reversed the car up the track and round to the villa which was about 20 yards away but up another fork in the track. There was, he explained, no electricity due to the fires, gave us a torch and left us to grope around for beds and collapse. 

That was day one.

Of course, it couldn't keep being that disastrous: we did get electricity back the next morning, although we lost it at random times throughout the week. The fires came pretty close to the villa - the next door neighbour who had been coming there for 11 years said she'd never seen it like this before and was keeping her bags half packed in case of evacuation. Helicopters flying overhead with big buckets dumping water on the hillsides were almost as constant as the massive and deafening crickets. Still, you can get used to anything. 

We had to drive back to the airport in Croatia to pick up our suitcases the next day, as they couldn't deliver them across the border. That took all day and we had an unnerving moment when the car park only took Croatian Kroner and we only had Euros.

On the final day, on the way back to the airport again for our flight home, the queues at the border were three hours long and in the midday sun the hire car overheated, spewing smoke and steam and consumed all our drinking water as, like the little red mini, it drank and it drank and it drank. Having been driven through hot ash, over boulders and on roads so narrow that my instinct to pull into the left caused some near misses, I was glad when hire car gangster nodded and we legged it off to the airport and home.


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